Five years ago this week, tiki torch-carrying white terrorists inaugurated Donald Trump.
Chanting antisemitic slogans dredged up from the Nazi era, the so-called “Unite the Right” rally marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. They claimed they wanted to save a statue of Robert E. Lee, the traitorous and defeated Confederate general, marked for removal by city officials.
But this assembly of hate and violence was really a show of support for Trump, their white supremacist-in-chief who had then been president for about seven months. The next day, Aug. 12, 2017, Heather Heyer was struck and killed by an avowed white nationalist who deliberately crashed his car into a crowd of antiracist protesters. At least 19 others were injured.
No one could have known it then, but Charlottesville was a preview of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Like the insurrectionists, the Charlottesville rioters felt no need to cover their faces. Donning a variety of Nazi and white supremacist symbols and carrying seditious Confederate flags, they took to the streets believing that the man who held this nation’s highest office had their backs.
And when it was over, he did. In brief comments after Heyer’s killing, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Trump could not bring himself to condemn those who infested Charlottesville or mourn the young woman murdered while protesting against hate — just as he could not unambiguously denounce the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
In a Globe column hours after Heyer’s murder, I wrote: “While President Trump cravenly condemned violence ‘on many sides,’ it appears there was only one side plowing a car at a high rate of speed into peaceful anti-racism protesters at a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va. There was only one side standing up for the values that America loves to espouse. Then there was that other side, boiling in hate, locked and loaded with fire and fury, who want to reclaim as theirs alone rights they have never been denied.”
With his refusal to publicly take a side, Trump aligned himself with the white supremacists who fervently supported him. They noticed.
“We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in,” said David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who endorsed Trump’s candidacy, after the rally turned deadly. “That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he was going to take our country back.”
At his Jan. 6 rally, Trump evoked that same sentiment and incited insurrectionists who breached the US Capitol in a blatant attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville’s horror, Trump doubled down on his equivocating arguments, going so far as to say there were “very fine people on both sides.” Duke tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.” BLM refers to Black Lives Matter.
Despite no corroborating evidence, “leftist terrorists” were also falsely blamed for Jan. 6. Trump fully demonized “the other side” — meaning those who voted against him — while continuing to lie about “an election stolen from us.” He told the insurrectionists, whose actions led to the deaths of at least five people, “You’re special” and “We love you.”
In 2017, right-wing trolls spread lies about Heyer’s death and about her mother, Susan Bro. Those attacks presaged the false accusations and insults hurled at law enforcement officers who’ve been outspoken about what they witnessed and endured on Jan. 6.
After Charlottesville, Trump continued to fashion himself into a modern-day Jefferson Davis leading an anti-democratic, white supremacist rebellion. Given that the white riot in Charlottesville was unlike anything this nation had witnessed in decades, it’s telling how quickly it was forgotten. It was viewed mostly as an ugly aberration, not a blueprint for the worst attack by Americans against their own government since the Civil War.
Five years ago, Trump let racists and neo-Nazis know they no longer needed to hide their intentions. That also applies to Republican-led legislatures that continue to codify policies endorsing hatred against vulnerable and marginalized communities.
If there was a defining moment of Trump’s reprehensible presidency, it was his willingness to defend white supremacists after the carnage in Charlottesville, the template for his unfinished insurrection and ongoing coup against democracy.